The Texans’ new year began with a tsunami of concerns in a matter of hours entering free agency. The team elected to trade away an All-Pro wide receiver for the likes of an aging, battered running back with a deadweight contract. Tossing DeAndre Hopkins, the franchise’s top weapon for the last decade, for David Johnson and a second-round pick begs the question if O’Brien even cares about building around the two-time Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson? And now, Watson has a front-row seat as to why battle red fans have a love/hate relationship with the team.
Quoting lyrics on “breaking up duos” and talking of “murky futures” is a message straight to the organization on deals that have been done. Liking a picture of Patriots’ Bill Belichick, potentially, being his next coach should be the wake-up call Houston needs to realize their star quarterback is already half-way out the door.
The impact of the Hopkins trade
"If I'm Deshaun Watson, there's no chance I'm signing an extension at any point in Houston right now."
— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) March 24, 2020
Trading a player like Hopkins, the one constant for the team over his seven-year stint, is questionable, to say the least. As the top target, the four-time Pro Bowler instrumented seasons with stats beyond the mark while helping quarterbacks such as Ryan Mallet, Brian Hoyer, Tom Savage, and Brock Osweiler look competent leading the team.
More often than not, it’s the man delivering strikes to weapons that enhance the team’s success. Before the arrival of Watson, Hopkins dragged a mundane offense to victories. Since being drafted in 2017, Watson improved the receiver’s numbers to remain consistently above the 1,000-yard marker.
i don't know how i’ma make it out of here clean. can’t even keep track of who plays for the other team..
iconic duos rip and split at the seams
— Deshaun Watson (@deshaunwatson) March 23, 2020
Bottom line — a second-round pick for even a signal-caller entering a contract season won’t do it in the trade market. Watson isn’t getting shipped out of Houston for the price that Hopkins was dealt for out west — even if you threw in a star in the making to help speed the process along.
Teams will always toy with the idea of trading away a franchise cornerstone. The Jaguars know that standout pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue isn’t trying to stay put, and his messages of birds found on Instagram are a clear indication of where he wants to play. Darius Slay was figured to remain with the Lions until he called it quits, but money talks and Detroit didn’t have the funds keep him in the building for the future.
Houston has shown they have a Jekyll/Hyde approach when it comes to the trade market. The Jekyll side showed O’Brien give up a pair of first-round picks to find franchise tackle Laremy Tunsil to keep Watson afloat. Mr.Hyde? See last week — or how the team waited too long to let go of Jadeveon Clowney and eventually settled with a mid-round pick — or trading a mid-round pick for a one-tool weapon in Duke Johnson.
You get the idea.
"If I'm Deshaun Watson, I'd go into Bill O'Brien's office and I'd ask to be traded."
— First Take (@FirstTake) March 19, 2020
Is New England really an option?
New England is desperate to remain in contention following the TB to TB news. The 20-year window of excellence with Tom Brady could be shut permanently if they can’t find a new face to guide them post bray and stay relevant in a Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson led AFC.
Houston and New England have direct ties to another following O’Brien’s stint under the Belichick and Jack Easterby experience working at in the Pats’ front office. That’s not even throwing in the fact that Houston made a play for Nick Caserio in the last offseason to be the next GM before the start of the 2019 campaign.
If Houston were to float the idea that Deshaun Watson was available for the right price, what would that even be? It’s hard to pinpoint since there are few game-changers like Watson, but the Texans’ front office operates more like a sideshow circus than your average workday. A first-round pick would have to be on the table as Houston will have only two selections in the first two days of April’s draft.
Counterpoint; why is a first the only option?
Since the O’Brien era began, Houston’s mindset has followed either win-now or do enough to get by approach. Smaller moves, like adding Carlos Hyde and two downtrodden years, look to fill needs at the right price. Trading for Tunsil and adding depth with Tytus Howard and Max Scharping are deals that are part of the long-term plan.
But again, Watson is in an elite category among players who will only make a roster better, meaning his stock it at a sky-high. And throw in what he could be wanting off the market in his second contract, this could be a deal that only a handful of teams can match.
Mahomes will be the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history soon. Watson and Jackson will fight for second place in guaranteed deals. New England will be tight at the salary cap, needing to either restructure contracts for names like Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, and the McCourty twins, who are all over the age of 31. In 2021, Belichick would have to either offer them a pay cut, ship them off for picks or cut his losses and release them into the free-agent market.
Houston, meanwhile, would have to accept the tank for another future commander and bring in a veteran such as Cam Newton or Andy Dalton as the short-term plan. Next April, they’d add a talent, for instance, someone with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields skillset as the mulligan option moving forward.
In the end, a deal like this could benefit all involved:
Houston receives 2020 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick, 2022 first-round pick, 2021 third-round pick, OG Joe Thuney.
New England receives: QB Deshaun Watson, 2020 sixth-round pick, WR Keke Coutee
Belichick is known for trading out of Thursday’s madness for plentiful picks in the future. Instead, he’d grab a franchise player to build around his new offense. The Texans would enter full-rebuild mode, adding talent for the future and a quality offensive lineman to protect the man under center on an improved line.
It’s evident O’Brien has burnt bridges internally with the players he leads out the tunnel any given Sunday. The time has come for Cal McNair to step in and make the call on which winding road he wants to take his franchise in. One leads to the future with Watson as the face of the team. The other leads to questions his right-hand man still in full control.
Cam Newton is on his way out of Carolina. Could DeShaun Watson's tweets signal he wants to be on the move as well? pic.twitter.com/0JTMEPluG2
— Around The Horn (@AroundtheHorn) March 24, 2020
One man will soon walk away from the Lone Star State for good. And if O’Brien is the choice, best bulk for the future and hit reset on the present before Watson is the one strutting. A king’s ransom for a talent like Watson is the only legitimate way to make sense to a fan base who always been ‘a quarterback away’.
Then again, he wasn’t afraid to gain almost nothing back for one incredible talent before.
Cole Thompson is a lead writer for PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @MrColeThompson, and follow PFN @PFN365.